What’s next for source of income protection in Austin?

The U.S. District Court in Austin. (Photo: Billy Hathorn / Creative Commons)
The U.S. District Court in Austin. (Photo: Billy Hathorn / Creative Commons)

On Friday, a federal district judge rejected the Austin Apartment Association’s challenge to source of income protection in Austin. The association has sought to block the implementation of an ordinance, passed unanimously by the Austin City Council in December, that prohibits landlords from discriminating against renters based on their use of Housing Choice Vouchers, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers or other vouchers. With AAA’s motion for preliminary injunction denied, source of income protection is now in effect in Austin.

Fair housing advocates rightly celebrated the ordinance’s court victory. Ninety-one percent of apartments in Austin currently don’t accept housing vouchers, isolating voucher holders in low opportunity, segregated neighborhoods. The ordinance now makes it illegal for landlords to have a “no vouchers” policy at their apartment complexes, just as other fair housing protections stop landlords from refusing to rent to people based on their race, sexual orientation, age and other factors.

The fight to establish source of income protection in Austin has been long and tinged with distressing reminders of the Civil Rights era. And, despite the court’s ruling, it’s not over yet.

According to a post on the Texas Apartment Association’s website, landlord associations plan to keep up their efforts to overturn the ordinance. On Monday, AAA filed an expedited request for review of the Friday ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and will seek a preliminary injunction to stop the ordinance pending another ruling. As TAA’s post notes, the district judge’s ruling indicates that “AAA’s argument is not likely to prevail at a full trial.” But they will try nonetheless.

The landlord associations’ second front in their battle against source of income protection could have dire consequences for voucher holders across the state. TAA’s post states that the organization “will continue to work within the legislature to garner support for legislation—SB 267 and HB 738—that prohibits source of income ordinances.”

The two bills mentioned actually comprise just half of the potential threats to source of income protection raised during this legislative session. Four bills have been proposed that, if passed, would void Austin’s ordinance:

SB 267: Filed by Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, SB 267 is the first and most direct challenge to source of income protection. It prohibits any municipality or county from regulating the refusal to lease to someone based on the way they plan to pay their rent. Perry has called source of income protection laws “dangerously close to fascism.

HB 738: Nearly identical to Perry’s Senate bill, HB 738 was proposed by Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio.

SB 343: As part of a broad push against local control by some members of the legislature, Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas filed SB 343 to prohibit any local law that runs counter to the state’s rules on the subject. Since Texas is not one of the 12 states (plus the District of Columbia) to adopt statewide source of income protection, Austin or any other municipality would not be allowed to enact that protection at the local level. Huffines has said that his proposal to eliminate city home rule in favor of centralized state control is an effort to stop “nanny state” municipal governments.

HB 1556: The most recent threat to source of income protection comes from Rep. Rick Miller of Fort Bend. HB 1556 is a more specific version of Huffines’ state control bill, prohibiting any local laws that create protected classes in an effort to prevent discrimination. Besides striking down Austin’s source of income ordinance, SB 343 and HB 1556 would also remove anti-discrimination protections for LGBT residents of most of the state’s large cities.

Miller’s bill has not yet been assigned to a committee, but the three others have. SB 267 was assigned to the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce while SB 343 will go before the Senate Committee on State Affairs. The House Urban Affairs Committee was assigned HB 738.

Between the legislation winding its way through committees and AAA’s decision to push their lawsuit forward to the Fifth Circuit Court, Austin’s fair housing ordinance still faces many obstacles. The fight to end discrimination against voucher holders continues.

“This court is not persuaded” – U.S. District Court rejects Austin Apartment Association challenge to city fair housing ordinance

In a ruling this afternoon, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks rejected a motion for preliminary injunction by the Austin Apartment Association to block implementation of the City of Austin’s  ordinance prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who rely on a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) to pay a portion of their rent.

With this ruling, the way is cleared to implement the Fair Housing Ordinance, passed unanimously by the Austin City Council last year.

We have written extensively in this blog about the issue and the harm to low-income families, in particular to low-income families of color, caused by this widespread type of discrimination.

We applaud Judge Sparks’ ruling. The Austin Apartment Association has mischaracterized this case from the beginning. The Apartment Association claims to be burdened and suffer from an infringement of their rights as property owners while ignoring the devastating impact of the actions of many of their members in maintaining racial and economic segregation in Austin. Just this week a national study characterized Austin as one of the most economically segregated urban areas in the country. The discriminatory actions of members of the Austin Apartment Association against Housing Choice Voucher holders have, in no small manner, produced and maintained segregation in Austin.

The court ruled that the Austin Apartment Association failed in its “burden of demonstrating a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” of the case. The judgement also notes that “the Court concludes the [Austin Apartment] Association has failed to show a substantial likelihood of success of its federal preemption claim.”

Rejecting the Association’s claim that the fair housing law violates the “liberty to contract” the Court ruled…

Moreover, the Ordinance advances an obviously legitimate government interest: ensuring low-income persons — many of whom are racial minorities, children, disabled or elderly — have access to affordable housing (and thus to better schools and safer neighborhoods) throughout the City of Austin.

The Court references a Circuit Court ruling that notes “[F]reedom to contract entails the freedom not to contract… except as restricted by antitrust, antidiscrimination, and other statutes” (emphasis added).

This is the heart of the issue: that government, and all of us for that matter, have a fundamental responsibility to protect the civil rights of our fellow citizens seems to be something the Austin Apartment Association has an inherent problem understanding. Now that a judge has rejected their claims that their property rights trump the fair housing rights of citizens, maybe the landlords association will at last get the message.

Video: TOP demands Houston take responsibility for environmental disaster

At this week’s meeting of the Houston City Council, several members of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) delivered their message loudly and clearly: the City must act to protect its residents from devastating environmental hazards.

The CES Environmental Services plant in south Houston closed more than four years ago after bankruptcy and criminal prosecution against the company for violating safety and environmental laws. But the industrial waste site still sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, spewing toxic fumes into the community and threatening public health. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site six months ago to finally begin cleanup.

The City of Houston has paid little attention to the abandoned and dangerous industrial site, despite giving CES the initial go-ahead to build in a residential neighborhood. The City has provided the EPA with no additional financial assistance, efforts to divert unhealthy water away from residents or guarantees that the site will be used to the community’s benefit once the cleanup concludes.

As the Houston Chronicle has covered, our partners at TOP are in the midst of a campaign to force the City to assume responsibility for a disastrous environmental hazard in one of its neighborhoods – and to pass an environmental rights ordinance to ensure that this never happens again. Watch their complete testimony below:

Austin veteran no longer homeless with the help of a housing voucher

An estimated 600 veterans in Austin are homeless. (Photo: Adriano Aurelio Araujo / Creative Commons)
An estimated 600 veterans in Austin are homeless. (Photo: Adriano Aurelio Araujo / Creative Commons)

This is part of a series of stories about the experiences of housing voucher holders. For more, read our previous posts

For more than five years JDR slept in his van, unable to fully stretch out, tucked under a comforter on winter nights, waking himself by washing in blistering cold water that he was unable to heat. JDR’s friends didn’t know that he was homeless, and they still don’t – he asked that only his initials be used in this piece to keep his identity private. He would meet friends for coffee every morning but park his van a mile away from the cafe; the walk there provided both some distance between his lives and a chance to mentally and spiritually prepare for the coming day.

“It’s amazing what the human body can accomplish if you set your mind to it,” says JDR, 67, a Vietnam veteran and native Texan. “I didn’t want to lose face, I didn’t want to lose my friends and I didn’t want to lose my van. It has not been easy.”

Now, JDR lives in an apartment in North Austin thanks to the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher program and the support of Caritas of Austin, a non-profit provider of housing, food, employment and education services for refugees, veterans, the homeless and others. Without a voucher, and without assistance in finding a place that would accept his voucher, JDR says he’d still be on the street, “but a lot more decrepit, maybe with a van that didn’t even run. I had no idea this program was available. I didn’t want to die prematurely and I certainly didn’t want to die with nothing in my hand.”

An electronic specialist in Vietnam, JDR returned home to the Houston area to work as an engineer for radio and television stations. As cutbacks in the broadcast industry and his advancing age took more and more jobs off the table, he was forced to travel across Texas in search of work. He spent the last of his savings on a hotel in Austin, where he accepted a job only to be told the next day that it was no longer available.

“It wasn’t for lack of initiative that I was where I was,” JDR says. With his income limited to Social Security checks and a few short-term jobs he picked up here and there, he was out of options in a city where rent has skyrocketed and where the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition estimates that some 600 veterans are homeless.

JDR visited Austin often during his youth and remembers when it was known for its cheap cost of living. “There’s not much affordable housing like there used to be,” he says. “And it’s difficult being without work because you’re almost thrown out [of consideration for housing] – you’re unacceptable. It’s all you can do to sustain yourself with food. You can’t afford the deposit and the upfront costs.”

He found ways to survive, and to keep up appearances, including the support of his Sunday school group and the Wednesday night meals at his church. Recently a church friend, the only friend JDR had told of his living situation, suggested that he reach out to Caritas of Austin. After some coaxing, JDR looked into the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program.

One of the services SSVF provides for veterans is locating housing that accepts VASH vouchers. That’s not an easy task in Austin, where 91 percent of landlords cannot or refuse to accept housing vouchers. A recent city ordinance banned discrimination against voucher holders based on their source of income, but that measure is now challenged by a lawsuit and bills in the the state legislature.

“Having a voucher is on par with having an eviction or having a felony. You get the same number of ‘no’s,’” says Abby Tatkow, a landlord outreach specialist with Caritas of Austin who helped JDR search for housing. Tatkow’s clients generally have a long road to finding a place to live, as VASH vouchers are only provided once housing is secured – and securing housing is something of a crapshoot.

Luckily, JDR’s path through the SSVF program and into his apartment was relatively simple. Tatkow located a cost-eligible apartment near the intersection of Metric Boulevard and Parmer Lane where the landlord is also the property manager, which eliminates one level of approval in a process that’s often tough on voucher holders. The landlord had never worked with housing vouchers but had an open mind, and was touched by JDR’s story. He moved in a few months ago.

“You wish every landlord was like her,” Tatkow says.

JDR jokes that his only housing problem now is figuring out his apartment’s programmable thermostat. Thanks to SSVF, his voucher and, most importantly, his endurance, JDR has a place to call his own.

“It’s been a blessing. There’s no way that I could have afforded anything like it otherwise,” he says. “It’s quite a change from where I’d been living, a place where it’s nice and warm and I can take a shower every day. It’s nice just to have a door to shut and a place to lie down flat.”

No surprise: National gentrification report lists Austin near the top

Census tracts in East Austin are among the most rapidly gentrifying in the country. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)
Census tracts in East Austin are among the most rapidly gentrifying in the country. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)

A new study backs up what Austinites already know to be true: Austin is one of most gentrifying cities in the country.

Gentrification in America Report,” an in-depth study conducted by Governing magazine, ranked Austin eighth in the nation in gentrification rate between 2000 and 2010. Gentrification rate was determined through an analysis of Census tract data: tracts that were in their metro areas’ bottom 40 percent of median household income and median home value in 2000, but are now in the area’s top third in home value and percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees, are considered to be gentrified.

The study found the 39.7 percent of Austin’s eligible Census tracts gentrified last decade, a higher percentage than New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and most other American cities. Portland, a city often compared to Austin, tops the list, and Austin is preceded only by Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Seattle, Virginia Beach, Atlanta and Denver. Elsewhere in Texas, Fort Worth cracked the list’s top 20 at number 17, while Houston was listed 22nd and San Antonio 37th.

Austin’s gentrification rate makes the top ten despite the study stopping in 2010, just before the peak of Austin’s current population boom. In the U.S. Census Bureau’s reports for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, Austin ranked number one in the nation in growth rate – and remains at number two in the most recent report. Population growth, when coupled with the kind of economic growth Austin has also seen in the past few years, produces the gentrification that Governing analyzed.

Unsurprisingly, Governing’s map of gentrifying neighborhoods highlights mostly Census tracts in East and South Austin. The most striking case is Census Tract 8.03, which is bordered by I-35 to the west, E Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, the MetroRail train tracks to the east and E 12th Street to the south – the residential heart of East Austin. Since 2000, home values in this neighborhood have increased by a whopping 205 percent, while the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees jumped from 10 percent to 49 percent.

Governing highlights a reality this neighborhood and many others have witnessed as gentrification increases: the displacement of residents of color, and the unequal distribution of economic success. “Neighborhoods gentrifying since 2000 recorded population increases and became whiter,” the report notes, with gentrifying tracts seeing a drop in the poverty rate and the white population increase by an average of 4.3 percent. By contrast, low income neighborhoods outside of gentrification zones lost population, increased in poverty rate by an average of 6.7 percent and became less white.

Gentrification in Austin has followed this pattern. As the Austin American-Statesman highlighted in a recent in-depth look at the city’s racial and economic divides that remain intact from the segregation era, while Austin’s population grew by more than 20 percent during the period covered by the Governing study, its black population fell by more than 5 percent. As home values soar, Austin’s minority populations have been pushed into more concentrated areas further from the city’s core or, often, outside the city entirely, to suburbs like Pflugerville. Austin is ninth out of the 100 largest metro areas in the nation in terms of income segregation. The University of Texas recently found that of the 10 fastest growing American cities in the last decade, Austin was the only one with a declining black population.

This all suggests that Austin is feeling the effects of gentrification as much or more so than any city in the country, and that the city must reckon with how to deal with these effects. That’s difficult in a climate of unprecedented economic growth, where proposals to increase affordability – like a city ordinance to help housing choice voucher holders move into higher opportunity, less segregated neighborhoods – are met with vociferous opposition.

If Governing conducts a follow-up study in the next decade, and if Austin continues on its current trajectory, it will not be a surprise to see the city even higher on the list.

Evita Cruz: Source of income discrimination leaves families vulnerable

This is part of a series about tenants who have faced discrimination because of their source of income. Watch Evita tell her story in the video above, and read the first installment in the series.

It was the holidays and Evita Cruz and her children were homeless.

Evita has a Section 8 housing choice voucher. She had to wait for two years to get one, but she’d had a voucher for a while when complications with her housing left her family on the street. It didn’t matter – because of the lack of housing options for voucher holders in Austin, Evita was without a place to live at the hardest time of the year.

“My children would tell me, ‘Mom, let’s go back home.’ But there’s no ‘back home,’” she remembers. “Eventually a place opened up and we were able to move in…but it was very hard.”

Evita is gainfully employed and raising two kids on her own. And she now volunteers with the organizing group Austin Interfaith, raising her voice in support of voucher holders. She spoke before the Austin City Council last year as they considered an ordinance to protect people from discrimination based on their source of income – an ordinance which passed unanimously, but is now challenged by a lawsuit and by bills in the state legislature.

She knows from experience how valuable source of income protection would be for voucher holders.

“When you throw the coin up in the air, you never know how it’s going to land,” Evita says. “In one minute, we can lose everything.”

Currently, 91 percent of landlords in Austin cannot or refuse to accept housing choice vouchers. This makes for a shortage of voucher housing that leads to long wait times for people to receive vouchers – longer than Evita’s two-year wait in many cases. It means that in times of crisis, even those with vouchers are vulnerable. And it leaves voucher holders without much choice at all in where they want to live.

Evita was eventually able to secure housing for herself and her children. But when she started looking for ways to get her kids into a higher-performing school, she found that she was unable to move to any neighborhoods that offered that opportunity.

“In any expensive area, it was a joke,” Evita says about her search for voucher housing near better-performing schools. “I couldn’t find anything. It has really affected us.”

Instead, Evita’s family has been forced to live in a lower opportunity neighborhood. She attributes the lack of housing options for voucher families to landlord discrimination.

“Some apartment complexes don’t take Section 8, and they stereotype people with vouchers and low income people, [saying] they’re just dirty and nasty,” Evita says. “But it’s not like that. I do have a job; I do work. I just need some help.”

The help extended by the City of Austin’s source of income protection ordinance is now under threat. But Evita says she’s optimistic, because people like her are speaking up for the rights of voucher holders.

“I honestly don’t think they’ll be able to win,” she says of those who oppose source of income protection. “Because more and more people are lifting their voices and saying, ‘we’re being discriminated against.’ It’s not something that you brush under the rug anymore.”

Austin Tenants’ Council study illuminates source of income discrimination

HACA faces the overwhelming refusal from Austin's landlords to accept housing choice vouchers. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)
HACA faces the overwhelming refusal from Austin’s landlords to accept housing choice vouchers. (Photo: Larry D. Moore / Creative Commons)

Austin’s new ordinance protecting renters from discrimination based on their source of income faces dual challenges, a lawsuit from the Austin Apartment Association and a bill set to be introduced in the Texas legislature, that describe source of income protection as an unlawful burden on landlords and an imposition on private property.

But cities have long had the right to protect groups of people when those groups face discrimination. Besides protecting the classes required by the federal government (race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, disability), the City of Austin also protects against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, marital status, student status and gender identity.

So are Section 8 tenants a class that needs protection? Thankfully, the Austin Tenants’ Council (ATC) provided a wealth of information on that question in their 2012 study “Voucher Holders Need Not Apply.” As the debate over source of income protection in Austin rages on, the study is more valuable than ever in demonstrating just how resoundingly the answer to the question is yes.

ATC surveyed every market-rate apartment complex with 50 or more units in the five counties that make up Austin’s metropolitan area, a total of 600 buildings with 139,919 units which comprise more than half of the Austin area’s rental market. Landlords were asked about rent costs, minimum income requirements (some Austin-area complexes require that tenants make two or three times the rental rate) and, finally, whether they accepted Section 8 vouchers.

Of those units, 78,217 met Section 8’s affordability criteria, set by the US government at $989 per month, the maximum amount of rent an apartment can cost in order to be eligible to receive housing choice vouchers. And of that number, a shockingly small amount said yes to Section 8 – only 8,590, or 6 percent of all the units surveyed. Ninety-four percent of surveyed complexes either cannot or refuse to accept low-income housing voucher tenants.

To boot, the vast majority of eligible and accepting units are located in Travis County. Williamson County has five Section 8-friendly large properties while Hays and Bastrop counties each have only one large complex that accepts Section 8, and the Bastrop property accepts only two vouchers. Caldwell County has not a single large complex where someone with a Section 8 voucher is allowed to live.

(ATC conducted a follow-up to their study in 2014, recontacting the 49 large properties in Travis County that accepted vouchers in 2012 and asking if they continued to do so. Nineteen did not, dropping Travis County’s number of large Section 8 properties to 30. And three of those 30 had a cap on the number of vouchers they would accept – one complex of more than 300 units limited their voucher-eligible units to 10.)

Clearly, finding an apartment that will take a voucher is difficult in metro Austin, especially if you live on the area’s fringes. But does that matter? Is six percent enough to satisfy Austin’s demand for Section 8 apartments?

Not even close. The ATC study also delves into demand for affordable rental units, illustrating another, equally large obstacle to low-income tenants beyond the lack of eligible and accepting Section 8 apartments. Around 34 percent of all households in the Austin area have incomes low enough to qualify for Section 8. Yet only 3 percent of all of those households receive a voucher.

The lack of availability means that waiting lists to receive Section 8 help are years and often hundreds of names long. At the time of the study, the waiting list of the Housing Authority of the City of Austin was 900 names long and had been closed for six years (HACA’s waiting list briefly opened again last year – for one week in October). Surrounding cities had closed lists as well. In total, September 2012 saw 2,250 households in the Austin metro area waiting in vain on closed voucher lists.

Those waiting lists are the cost of discrimination against renters based on the source of their income. Ninety percent of Austin’s voucher holders are people of color. Forty-eight percent are children, 23 percent are people with disabilities, seven percent are elderly and many are veterans returning from combat zones. ATC’s invaluable research shows how difficult a position discrimination has put them in, and how important it is that an ordinance which finally offers them some support remains in place.